The Olympic Games: From Ancient Greece to Modern times
The Olympic Games, the world’s greatest sporting festival, involves a series of sporting events that draws large participation rates from over 200 countries across the world. Every four years, the game sees thousands of athletes compete in several sporting disciplines that push them to their physical and mental limits. Equally as astonishing as the current state of the Olympics, is the history behind it.
Then, in the 19th century CE, the Games made a massive and spectacular comeback onto the world stage. Ever since then, its two major components – the Summer and Winter Olympics – have mesmerized and entertained billions of people across the globe.
Wordhistoryedu.com explores how this ancient game became the biggest international sporting ceremony of our modern era. Why and how did the Olympics even start in the first place? And what sorts of sport events took place back then? These and many more other questions are succinctly answered below:
Why did the Olympic Games start?
The Olympic Games began in the 8th century BC (probably 776 BC) at a place called Olympia, south west Greece. It was a huge festival in the lives of the Greeks because it served two main purposes. The first purpose of the Olympics back then was to honor the Greek god, Zeus. Zeus was highly revered and regarded as the king of all Greek gods. As a result of this, grand monuments, temples and festivals were made in his honor. And there was no better way to honor him than to use the biggest sporting festival that had large following and appeal.
The second reason for the games’ appeal had to do with the Greek’s obsession and absolute love for physical fitness. Some historians note that the events were to showcase how far an individual could push himself to ridiculous amounts of physical pain. These, and many more other, factors explain why most of the athletes competed nude or semi-nude.
Considering the strain that athletes had to go through during the competition, ancient Greeks popularly held the belief that competitors and even winners of those events were superior human beings that had been touched by the gods themselves.
The winners were richly honored with gifts and ceremonies back in their hometowns or cities. Several myths even claim that the games were originally started by the Heracles (Hercules) himself, son of Zeus and Alcmene. It is understandable for such myths to take roots in ancient Greece because Hercules himself was seen as the epitome of physical strength with god-like powers.
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Where were the Ancient Olympic Games held?
The Games, as well as several variations of it, were scattered across the various city-states in ancient Greece. Historians can confidently say that the epicenter of the games’ venue was Olympia. Olympia was the birthplace of the Olympics. The city had several temples that were used in conjunction to honor the Zeus. Places like Elis also hosted some of the games in honor of the various Greek gods and goddesses. It was an extremely festive and jubilant time for the people of those times.
In addition to Olympia, there were about three other places that hosted several variations of the Games. They were the Pythian Games (at Delphi), the Nemean Games, Isthmian Games (around Corinth).
How often were the Ancient Olympic Games held?
The actual frequency of the games in the ancient times is opened to several theories. However, many historians hold the view that the games were held every four years. Some historians even go further to pinpoint the exact date as being from August 6 to September 19. It was such a monumental sporting festival that historians and writers pegged their measurement of time with the occurrence of the game. So for example, an Olympiad was equivalent to four years in ancient Greek culture back then.
In the lead up to the Olympic Games, it wasn’t uncommon to find Olympia turning into a buzzing and colorful city filled with thousands of visitors. Messengers, numbering in their hundreds, were dispatched all around Greece to announce the start of the games. This was a sign that all warring states or cities had to bring their conflicts to a stop so that the people could safely head to Olympia for the Games. At that time, no other place on the earth held more importance than Olympia. Around 50,000 people would troop into Olympia to witness this amazing spectacle. The people came from all over Greece and beyond.
In the course of the event, visitors took to praying and honoring Zeus at several temples littered across Olympia. They sacrificed animals and placed several offerings at the big gold and ivory embroidered statues of Zeus. The organizers also took to sacrificing as many as 100 oxen to Zeus, the king of the gods.
Events that took place at the Ancient Olympics
The first known Olympic event likely took place in 776 BCE. It was a foot race competition. However, as the decades rolled by, the game expanded to include other sport events. There was the Stade: a 210-yard race. Interestingly, the English word “stadium” was derived from Stade. This is because the Stade Games were held in places similar to what we call stadium today.
In 724 BCE, a two-length race called the Diaulos was added to the games. It was similar to the modern-day 400-meter race. Two years prior to that, in the year 726 BCE , the Games had Dolichos . This game involved a long distance race similar to the 1500 or 5000-meter modern race. Also, wrestling and pentathlon got call ups in the year 708 BCE. The pentathlon required competitors to engage in a series of events such as javelin throw, discus throw, long jump, wrestling, and footrace.
As the Games’ popularity soared, boxing and chariot racing were added in the years 688 BCE and 680 BCE respectively. The Greeks also made provision for the youth. In the years 632 and 616 BCE, boys had the chance to take part in the games.
Very surprisingly, the Games back then had no team-type of competition. There were no ball games either. Ball and football type of sports will later be invented in the near future.
At the formative stages and beginnings of the Ancient Olympics, it is believed that all the events most likely occurred in one day. But later, as the Games drew more and more crowds, the duration was expanded to four or five days. The last day (day four) was for the closing ceremony and award presentation.
Why did the Olympians compete stark nude or semi-nude?
To answer this question, we must first understand the philosophy of the ancient Greeks back then. Ancient Greece was a bustling state that periodically engaged in city-to-city conflicts. They were absolutely obsessed with staying in the best physical shape. This was not just for warring conflicts back then. It was seen as important to one’s social class and religious standing. The later was reflected in the sculptures and paintings of the gods. They portrayed the Olympian gods as supernatural men and women with remarkably good looks and mental acuity. They had gods who were attributed with the highest human trait possible.
Secondly, there was nothing shameful competing nude or exposing one’s self in the stadia. It was a huge pride for them. They saw it as a form of rite of passage that also repelled evil spirits away. Back then, public nudity was also primarily reserved for the upper class.
What sort of athletes participated at the Olympics?
Before one could seriously compete in any of the ancient games, the person had to be in a top-notch physical state. Extreme levels of training were required for years and years. There were special places (places we will call gymnasiums) and stables dedicated to training these athletes in the various city states back then.
The sheer prestige and honor that came with competing or even winning an event at the Olympics are what fueled many of those athletes to push themselves to god-level and superhuman performances. The games were extremely strenuous and even in some cases brutal. There was no room for mediocrity and hesitations. Perfection was key to competing and winning.
The athletes who competed in the Games were not just from Olympia. Some of them came from far and wide, places such as Africa, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and the Italian peninsula. Some of these athletes trained all their lives for the Games.
There were also some athletes who juggled training with other professions. For example, Coroebus, a cook in Elis, is regarded by historians as the first Olympic champion. He competed in the sprint race in 776 BCE.
What kinds of prizes did the winners receive?
As time progressed, the prizes also got more and more substantial. The winners were considered 1st class citizens, second to the gods in terms of perfection. Adulation (usually wreath or garland) and immense benefits were showered on the winners when they returned to their villages or towns. Back then, the prizes were not gold, silver nor bronze medals. What all historians can unanimously agree on is that the competing Olympian athletes primary sort honor and glory.
Were women allowed to compete in the Ancient Olympic Games?
The Greek culture back then was not an extremely misogynistic culture as seen in some other ancient civilizations. They even had famous goddesses that were believed to look over and bless entire cities. Popular mentions include: Hera (Zeus’s extremely jealous wife), Athena, Demeter, Electra, Artemis, Hestia, Alectrona, Antheia, and Aphrodite.
Now that we have established how much the Greeks valued women and feminine traits, let’s check to see if they actually walked the talk. Did the society back then allow women to participate in the Olympic Games?
Answer to this question has been widely debated by several historians. The popularly held belief is that women did not directly compete in the game. However, some of them owned stables and gymnasiums that produced athletes to compete in the Games. As a result of this, the names of some of these women appeared alongside the champions’ names on the official list of champions.
Some of the honor the athletes received back in their hometowns also rubbed off on these women. So, yes! The game was opened to all en-sundry. Now, even in places such as Sparta, young women and girls were allowed to compete at the local levels.
There have been some reports that married women were not allowed to the stands of the Games. This has been disputed by a number of historians. Regardless of that, the Greeks had some special competitions reserved for the unmarried women and the women who owned those stables we earlier talked about. They used this Special Olympics to honor the goddess Hera, Zeus’s estranged wife. The games were called Heraia. The Winners took home crowns of special olive branches (similar to the ones the men got).
Citations can be made to the events that plagued the 2nd century BCE. The events saw a lot of gender biases against women. Some ancient historians claim that women were strictly forbidden from the events. The penalty for disobeying was death. However, there is no concrete evidence supporting those claims. One could say that even if those occurrences actually took place, they happened during the Roman Empire’s rule. As we would see in the following passages, the Games by then were beginning to lose its appeal. Ironically, the emperors of Rome by that time saw it too pagan a sport.
The Olympic Games during the Roman Empire
From around about the 2nd century, the Olympic Games and its organization were on the verge of fading into obscurity. The coming of Roman rule and expansion saw the games decline. The Emperors invested less time and effort into its organization. Some Romans even loathed the festival. Particularly, the idea of competing naked was considered very humiliating and degrading.
However, this notion didn’t stop some Roman emperors such as Augustus and Nero to deploy the Games as a political and power-boosting strategy. And contrary to wide spread belief, the Olympic Games and the Roman gladiator competitions in the arena were two entirely different competitions. The Romans did not participate in the Greek athletic games. A typical gladiator was in the arena for public entertainment. On the other hand, an Olympian was in the game solely to compete and honor Zeus. Neither of them was interested in engaging the other’s sports or games. As time went by, the Olympic Games became less appealing to the larger Roman public.
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When exactly were the Ancient Olympic Games abolished?
Around about 400 AD, Roman Emperor Theodosius I (some historians claim it was his son instead) issued a ban on all Olympic activities. The rationale behind the abolition was because of Games’ association with the pagan gods and culture. And by then Christianity was flourishing and building momentum all across the Roman Empire. Catholicism was beginning to take strong roots in the nutshell.
After about 12 centuries of intense competition and honoring of Greek gods and goddesses, the Ancient Olympic games ground to a halt. The Games would not see daylight until the later part of the 19th century.
The Modern Olympic Movement and Times
The revival of the Olympic Games occurred in post-renaissance Europe. The continent was seriously getting her act together and preparing for the 20th century. Ideas and inventions flowed unimpeded across the continent, and some of them even went to and fro the Atlantic into the U.S. The earliest records of the Game making a comeback was in the 17th century. The Cotswold Games (also known as the Cotswold Olimpick) comes into mind. It was organized annually by Robert Dover around Chipping Campden, England.
Also, there was the L’Olympiade de la République, that was held yearly from 1796 to 1798 in France. The mid-19th century also saw several variations of the games held in Ramlösa and Stockholm, Sweden. Those events were championed by Gustaf Johan Schartau. About 25,000 people attended those games. However, in England, the rebooting was left in hands of William Penny Brookes. Brookes organized an annual game called the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1859.
The greatest effort put into reviving the the Olympic Games was made by the French socialite, Pierre baron de Coubertin. Coubertin is highly regarded as the founding father of the modern Olympics because he strongly campaigned and pushed for a Europe that complemented her novel scientific ideas and inventions at that time with strong physical health. Towards the later part of the 19th century, Coubertin combined resources and efforts with Brookes and a host of Greek enthusiasts. That’s right! The birthplace of the Olympics, Greece, had begun to take tentative steps towards the revival of the Games. There were snippets and small events that were held in Athens from 1870 to 1875.
Zappas Evangelos, a Greek-Romanian Philanthropist, funded and organized most of those games. And the usual suspects, Brookes and Coubertin, often graced such sporting events with their presence. A few years later, in 1890, Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee. And four years later, in 1894, Coubertin submitted his ideas at an international sport conference in Paris, France. That year saw the Games officially come to life, as Coubertin’s proposal received a unanimous vote of approval at the conference.
The Maiden Olympic Games of 1896
Owing to the Paris Confrence of 1894, Demetrius Vikelas was elected as the first IOC president. And the initial pick for the hosting venue was Paris and the planned year was 1900. However, after several deliberations and lobbying from Coubertin and his associates, the game was moved to Athens, Greece, and the agreed upon host year was 1896. The games were ceremoniously opened by the King of Greece, King George I, in the first week of April 1896. The stadium of the inaugural Olympic Games of 1896 took place at the Panetheniac Stadium. By the close of the event, the United States had won the most gold medals, 11. And the host nation Greece came tops with the most medals, a total of 46.
How many nations competed in the first modern Olympics?
The Greek Olympics of 1896 saw 14 nations compete. The nations were: Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. There were a total of 241 athletes that competed in 43 events. There was very strong political and public enthusiasm about the Games in Greece. Many even felt that Athens should be the permanent host of the Games. Obviously, that did not happen.
The International Olympic Organization (IOC) decided that it was best the Games rotated across different cities in Europe and the world. Along with the IOC, Coubertin envisaged an international Olympics whose sole objective was to promote peace in continental Europe and beyond. He is quoted as saying:
Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally.
Who is responsible for organizing the Olympic Games?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the sole body that organizes and manages the affairs of all Olympic activities around the world. They are assisted by the National Organizing Committee of the host country. The International Sports Federation also lends its efforts to the IOC. Another crucial sister organization of the IOC is the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
The IOC is an autonomous organization that elects its own members. The current membership stands at 115. The members get to be elected every eight years. The presidency spans for 8 years, and after that the president is eligible to run for another two terms of 4 years each.
Post World War I, the headquarters of the IOC was moved from Paris to Lausanne, Switzerland. As part of its growth and modernization efforts, the IOC has put in place succinct regulations that govern the activities of the body as well as its members. The members of the IOC must at all times act in an independent manner. Their sole aim is to promote the development of the sports all around the world. They are also free from 3rd party or governmental controls and instructions.
Who was the first president of the International Olympics Committee (IOC)?
The first president of the IOC was Demetrius Vikelas, a Greek writer. He was elected in 1894 by members of the IOC. He served until 1896.
However, the history of the Modern Olympics can never be complete without mentioning Pierre baron de Coubertin. In addition to his immense contribution to the games, Coubertin also goes down in history as the longest serving president of the IOC. He also erved as the President of the IOC from 1896 to 1925.
How are host cities for the Olympics selected?
The IOC votes at its delegate conference to pick the hosting city. Technically, the awards go to the cities and not the countries in which those cities are. This is in line with the original and ancient traditions of the game being held in city-states.
Recent Controversies in the Olympic Games
Since its revival in 1896, the Olympic Games and its organization have taken place in an atmosphere completely devoid of political affiliations or religious associations. It has been an utterly neutral sporting festival open to all race and people all over the world.
There have been instances of where central governments and political organizations or individuals have tried to bulldoze their political or national ideologies into the Olympics. An example of such an unfortunate controversy happened at the Montreal Olympics of 1976. Canada refused to grant entry to Taiwan representatives because of the dispute it had with mainland China.
Also, the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936 saw a lot of Nazi propaganda permeate into the organization and opening ceremony. This resulted in a number of athletes and countries boycotting the Berlin 1936.
The Cold War era resulted in fierce competition between the U.S. and the USSR for dominance and political influence both on and off the track and field. The entire U.S. team boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games because of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets got their pound of flesh 4 years later by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Also, the 1972 Munich Games saw terrorist cells infiltrate and carry out a deadly attack at the base camp of the Israelis. The Mexico City Olympics of 1968 saw several massive students’ protests against the government’s huge expenditures on organizing the games. That same year saw a number of African American athletes partly boycott the games to protest against the brewing racial tensions and issues in the U.S.
In what years did the Olympic Games not take place?
The Olympic Games have had good run in terms of hosting and continuity. In its history of about 123 years, the games have only been paused 3 times. They were in 1916, 1940 and 1944. All three of these years occurred when the world was flipped upside down: World War I and World War II.
The Summer Olympics versus the Winter Olympics
Ever since, the inaugural Olympics held in 1896, the Summer Olympics have taken place every 4 years for the past 120 something years (except in 1916, 1940 and 1944). Unlike the Summer Olympics, the winter Olympics first took place in 1924 in Chamonix, France. Initially, both games occurred in the same calendar year. However, since 1992, the two games have occurred on a staggered two-year schedule. Thus, they occur every 4 years, but with 2 years in between them.
What are some of the sports and events held at the Olympics?
The IOC (International Olympic Committee) is the sole body that determines which sports be added or removed from the Olympics. And over the years there have been a number of additions and exclusions. As it stands now, the number of sports events that often occurs in the Olympics in general is about 33 (give or take future decisions of the IOC).
The Summer Olympics in particular entertains spectators with the following sports and events: archery, athletics(track and field), golf, football (soccer), field hockey, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing and kayaking, cycling, team handball, equestrian sports, fencing, gymnastics (including artistic, rhythmic, and trampoline), judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, rugby, sailing (formerly yachting), shooting, table tennis, tae kwon do, tennis, triathlon, volleyball (indoor and beach), weightlifting, aquatics (including swimming, synchronized swimming, diving, and water polo) and wrestling. Women are eligible to partake in the above sports, whereas men do not take part in synchronized swimming or rhythmic gymnastics.
The Winter Olympic sports that are played on snow or ice include: luge, biathlon, skiing, bobsledding, ice skating (figure skating and speed skating), curlin, skeleton sledding, ski jumping, ice hockey, and snowboarding. The games are opened to both men and women athletes.
Note: In 2009 the IOC members agreed to add women’s boxing to the 2012 program. In 2016 Rio Olympics, gold and rugby sevens were added to the tournament. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will see Baseball and softball make a comeback. 3×3 basketball, surfing, freestyle BMX, karate, Madison cycling, sport climbing and skateboarding were also added to the Games.
What is the motto of the Olympic Games?
The IOC adopted these Latin words: “Citius, altius, forties” as the official motto of the Games in 1894. They mean: “Faster, higher, stronger”. The person who coined this term was Henri Didon, a French Dominican Preacher.
How do the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the Olympic Games occur?
The opening ceremonies of the Modern Olympics have always maintained the tradition of letting the Greek team be the first country to enter the stadium. Subsequently, the other participating countries enter in alphabetical order (the host country’s alphabet). The last country to enter is always the host country.
The Game’s closing ceremony sees all the athletes mingling and interacting with one another. They are not segregated into countries as seen in the opening ceremony. The rationale for doing this falls in line with the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) objective of using sports and competition to pursue friendliness and peace among nations of the world.
FAQs about the Olympic Games
The history and evolution of this iconic sporting event have been summarized in the following questions and answers:
When did the Ancient Olympic Games begin?
The Ancient Olympic Games began in ancient Greece, around 776 BC. They were held in Olympia and dedicated to the Greek god Zeus.
When were the Modern Olympic Games established?
The Modern Olympic Games were established in 1896, with Athens, Greece, hosting the first modern Olympics.
How often are the Olympic Games held?
The Summer Olympics are typically held every four years, while the Winter Olympics are also held every four years, but staggered so that there is an Olympic Games event every two years.
What is the Olympic flame?
The Olympic flame is a symbol of the Olympic Games. It is lit in Olympia, Greece, using the sun’s rays and then carried by a relay of runners to the host city, where it is used to light the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony.
How many Olympic sports are there?
The number of Olympic sports can vary from one Games to another, but there are typically around 33 sports in the Summer Olympics and 7 sports in the Winter Olympics.
What is the significance of the Olympic rings?
The Olympic rings are a symbol of the Olympic Games. They consist of five interlocking rings of different colors (blue, yellow, black, green, and red) on a white background. These rings represent the five continents of the world and the unity of athletes from all over the globe.
What is the purpose of this prestigious sporting event?
In actual fact, the Olympic Games aim to promote international understanding and peace through sports. They provide a platform for athletes to showcase their talents and promote a sense of unity among nations.
How has the Olympic Games evolved over time?
The Olympic Games have evolved significantly over time, with changes in sports, rules, and the inclusion of both the Summer and Winter Olympics. They have also faced challenges such as political boycotts and controversies, but they continue to be a global celebration of athleticism and cooperation.